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ARCHITECTURAL CHARACTER

CHRISTIAN L. VENTURA
LAO ARCHITECTURE
Lao architecture is mainly a mix of French
colonial, Buddhist (in temples), traditional
Lao and modern architecture, with some
influences from Thailand and other
countries. In rural areas most Lao people
live in Lao traditional houses, built of wood
and raised off the ground on stilts, but in
urban areas modern style houses are more
common and Lao traditional houses are
slowly disappearing. Many ethnic groups
have their own house styles, such as the
Hmong, Iu Mien, and some other ethnic
groups in the northern mountainous areas,
where the weather is cold and windy in cold
season. These groups build houses on the
ground with the end of the roof almost
touching the ground.
The most important buildings in
Laos are the wat (a Buddhist
temples, sometimes spelled
“vat”) and the that (a Buddhist
stupa built to hold religious
objects). Lao structures have
traditionally been constructed of
wood, which is often ravaged by
the elements, and thus not many
old structures remain. Secular
architecture includes French
colonial and French-influenced
buildings with pitched tile roofs
and shuddered windows;
Chinese-style shophouses with
upper floors for residences and
lower floor for shops and
businesses; and post-
Revolutionary structures built in
a socialist realist style; and neo-
traditional style buildings like
those at Luang Prabang airport
and Vientiane’s National
Assembly hall.
Across Laos there exists a plethora of
distinctive monuments and
architectural styles. One of the most
notable structures is the That Luang,
the great Sacred Stupa, in Vientiane.
Its dome-like stupa and four-cornered
superstructure is the model for similar
monuments across Laos. Stupas serve
to commemorate the life of the
Buddha and many stupas are said to
house sacred Buddha relics (parts of
Buddha s body). Traditionally,
Theravada Buddhists cremated the
dead body and then placed the bones
in stupas, which are set around the
grounds of temples, or wats. Different
styles of architecture are evident in the
numerous Buddhist Wats.
TRADITIONAL LAO HOMES
Traditional Lao Homes
Traditional Lao houses are made of
wood or bamboo and are built on
stilts above the ground. People live
on the first floor of houses raised on
timber stilts. Traditionally the houses
had steep thatched roofs and
verandas. Under the house the
family often keep animals, craft
equipment such as a loom and
simple food processing machines like
large wooden mortars and pestles. In
the grounds around the house were
often a rice granary, family livestock
and poultry, vehicles, fruit trees, a
kitchen garden and maybe a kitchen
shack. The quality and type of homes
changes with elevation. The lowland
Lao generally live in better quality
housing than the poorer highland
tribes.
Lao Loum houses are built on wooden
piles with the floor from one to two-and
one-half meters above the ground. This
style keeps the living area above the
mud of the rainy season, provides a
shady area under the house to work or
rest during the day, and allows the
house to catch breezes for natural
cooling. Depending on the wealth and
resources of the family, the walls and
floor may be made of woven split
bamboo or sawn wood; the roof is
constructed from grass thatch, bamboo,
wood shingles, or corrugated steel
roofing sheet. Some older houses in
well-off villages are roofed with clay
tiles, but this style was no longer
common in the early 1990s. A separate
rice granary is built in the house
compound, also on posts using similar
construction. Livestock is sometimes
kept under the house.
Northeastern-style houses are
similar to central Thai houses.
They are built of wood on stilts,
but their roofs feature a gentler
slope since there is less rain to
cope with. Thatch and corrugated
iron roofs are more common in
Isaan than other regions. Walls
are perpendicular, not slanted,
and often made of simple
wooden planks rather than the
prefabricated panels used in
other regions. Homes are built in
a compound structure, starting
with a main cabin; a second cabin
may be added as the family
grows.
DIFFERENT STYLES OF ARCHITECTURE
Vientiane-style
temple
architecture
features a large
veranda with
heavy columns, an
ornamented,
overhanging roof,
carved wood
porticos and a
carved wood
shade along the
top of the
veranda, often
with half-bird, half
human kinnari
against a
background of
stylized foliage.
Luang Prabang-style
temple architecture is
similar to the northern
Siamese Lanna style. It
features a roof that is
very pointed and steep
at the top and gradually
flares and is almost
horizontal at the
bottom and often
almost touches the
ground. The Lao
sometimes say these
roofs resemble to the
wings of a hen
protecting her chicks.
Many wats have gold-
leaf-covered doors and
outer walls.
The Xieng Khuang style of
northern Laos, of which
relatively few examples
remain, features a multiple-
level platform and a roof that
sweeps low and wide and
usually isn’t tiered. The Thai
Lu style features
whitewashed stucco walls,
small windows, two or three-
ired roofs, curved pediments
and naga lintels over the
doors and steps. Thai Lu
stupas are typically gilded
and octagonal in shape of
are covered with Thai Lu
fabrics.
RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE IN LAOS
1) The style of
Luang Prabang, is
characterized by
its huge pointed
roofs made from
flat tiles which
are put down in
successive layers,
normally two or
three, stopping
only a few metres
from the ground.
2) The style of Xieng
Khouang, presents an
accentuated form of the
characteristics described
above : the roofs come nearly
all the way down to the
ground, and their cross
sections are almost perfect
pentagons. We can see in this
style a provincial version of
the Luang Prabang style,
structures built in this way
are nearly all situated in the
province of Xieng Khouang,
to the South-East of Luang
Prabang. You can also see the
original style of the Lao
vihans, the style of Luang
Prabang only representing the
result of a long evolution; it
would appear that the old
vihans of Luang Prabang
belong to the Xieng Khouang
style.
3) The style of
Vientiane is a more
tapering style, the
part that the roof
plays in the
structure is less
important here and
the openings are
higher.
HISTORY OF LAO ARCHITECTURE
The 16th century witnessed an extraordinary flowering of Buddhist art and
architecture in Lane Xang, presided over by three illustrious kings - Wisunarath
(1501-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571).
During this period wats were increasingly constructed in major centres of
population, where they became a focal point for all aspects of daily life. At the
same time their design and layout became progressively more elaborate,
evolving into a series of buildings which would eventually include an ordination
hall (sim), a manuscript library (ho tai), a bell tower (ho rakhang), a drum
tower (ho kong), a stupa (that) and an area dedicated to the Buddhist sangha
containing the monks’ living quarters (kuti). Though Lao wats evolved in the
same basic way as those of their Siamese or Khmer neighbours, they were
generally more modest in appearance and came to be characterised by the
distinctive dok so fa (pointing to the sky) roof fixture and dok huang phueang
(beehive pattern) front entrance panel of the sim.
Sim

King Wisunarath King Photisarath King Sai Settathirath

Ho Kong Ho Tai kuti Ho Rakhang Stupa


During this period of war between northern
Thailand (Lanna Kingdom) and the southern,
many Chiang Mai families fled to Xiang Dong
Xiang Thong, where their cultural influence was
felt in a number of artistic fields, notably the
development of temple architecture.
Characterised by a high-pointed tiled roof
sweeping down in multiple tiers, the Lanna-
inspired Luang Prabang II style sought to
represent the cosmological levels in Buddhist
doctrine. This style of temple architecture is found
only in Luang Prabang and King Sai Setthathirat I's
great masterpiece Wat Xieng Thong stands as its
most elegant and best-preserved example. The
back of Wat Xieng Thong with its famous tree of
life mosaic in colored glass on a dark red
background. This is one of the best known images
in modern Laos. The mosaic was crafted in 1960 by
the Lao craftsmen.
TRADITIONAL LUANG PRABANG HOUSES AND
BUILDINGS
Traditional wooden houses built on posts high above the ground
represent the oldest architectural heritage in Luang Prabang. Built high
on hardwood posts, traditional wooden houses were created with
prefabricated lightweight materials such as woven bamboo or wood.
Houses were generally rectangular in shape with a simple ridged roof
covered with thatch or bamboo, with a separate kitchen located at the
side. The use of high gables and natural materials enhanced ventilation,
and long projecting eaves provided protection from severe seasonal rain.
The space beneath the raised floor provided security and a useful work
and storage place. Both traditional raised wooden houses and masonry
structures built on the ground, the two types of architectural systems
found throughout South East Asia, exist in harmony in Luang Prabang
and correspond to their respective water and land based backgrounds.
The earlier water based culture influenced architecture that was
harmonious and suitable for an environment in which rain and river
dominated, while land based architecture, which included structures
associated with religions or royal functions, were gradually adopted and
came to be known as formal or classic.
Although previously
utilized for constructing
the foundation of certain
structures in a wat, brick
and stucco became the
primary building
materials for colonial
influenced buildings .
Neo-colonial buildings
combined wooden floors
from traditional local
architecture with french
colonial influenced lower
walls utilizing masonry.
Early 20th century French
colonial influenced structures
are a more recent addition to
the architectural landscape of
Luang Prabang. Adapted for
tropical conditions, the majority
of these thick-walled public
administration buildings and
official residences were built
using brick and stucco with
pitched tile roofs and wooden
shuttered windows. Gradually,
neo-colonial structures that
combined both traditional local
elements and French influences
appeared. When merged
together in a relatively
harmonious manner with
traditional wooden structures,
these colonial and other foreign
influenced structures such as the
Chinese inspired shop-houses
added another aesthetically
interesting element to Luang
Prabang's architectural heritage.
LUANG PRABANG RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE
After Theravada Buddhism was
officially adopted in the 14th
century during the reign of Fa
Ngum, monasteries (wats) were
progressively built on the
former sites of animist shrines.
Most of these wats were
destroyed when Luang Prabang
was invaded by foreign
aggressors in 1887, however, a
substantial number have since
been rebuilt using traditional
methods and styles. A residence
of monks is known as Kouti. It is
constructed in a similar manner
as a traditional wooden houses.
The architecture of the Theravada
Buddhist wat reflects its role as the
meeting place of monks and the
community. From a technical
perspective, monks must actually
reside in the wat compound, which
consists of various structures laid out
according to a specified plan, for it to
be considered a monastery. Generally
the largest and most elaborately
ornamented structure, the
congregation hall (Sim) is
considered the most important
building in the compound and is
where monks are ordained.
Generally longer than wide, the
Sim has a front entrance for the Congragation Hall
congregation and a back entrance
for the monks. Inside, at the far
end, a large Buddha image is
positioned on a dais. As a means
to contain treasure sealed in its
foundation, the Sim was the first
architectural structure to utilize
brick and mortar building
materials and techniques.
QUESTIONS
1. One of the most notable structures in Vientiane? 4. It is one of the most important structure in Laos?
a. Ho Rakhang
a. That Luang
b. Ho tai
c. That Luang b. Ho Rakhang
d. Kuyi c. Hmong, Iu Mien
2. ____________ architecture features a large veranda d. That Stupa
with heavy columns, an ornamented, overhanging roof,
carved wood porticos and a carved wood shade along 5. Which of them is not one of the kings in 16th
the top of the veranda, often with half-bird, half human
kinnari against a background of stylized foliage. century?
a. Vientiane-style temple a. King Wisunarath
b. The style of Xieng Khouang
b. King Photisarath
c. Luang Prabang-style temple
d. None of the above c. King Xieng Khouang
3. __________ colonial influenced structures are a more d. King Sai Settathirath
recent addition to the architectural landscape of Luang
Prabang.
a. Thai c. Spannish
b. French d. Chinese

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